How Long is Eternity?

alex atkins bookshelf literatureEnduring the coronavirus seems like an eternity, doesn’t it? That recent impression certainly invites the question: how long is eternity? That is to say, if you could measure it using current concepts of time as we know it, how long would eternity be? While philosophers like Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes, and Boethius have addressed eternity, it turns out several authors have also provided answers to this fascinating question.

The first to address the length of eternity were two brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (better known as the Brothers Grimm), German cultural researchers, philologists, and lexicographers, who collected traditional folktales written by other writers or passed down through oral tradition and published them as Children’s and Household Tales (Kinder- und Hausmärchen) in 1812; a second volume was published in 1815. All 200 or so stories are found in a collection we recognize today as The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. You are probably familiar with the stories of Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Snow White, Rapunzel, and Sleeping Beauty, to name just a few (all of which have been translated into more than 100 languages and have been adapted countless times in literature and cinema — imagine the royalties the Grimm family could have collected!). But what interests us today, in discerning the length of eternity, is a lesser known story — the insightful, charming tale of the Shepherd Boy, originally written by Ludwig Aurbacher (1784-1847), a German teacher and writer, in 1819 titled Das Hirtenbüblein. In this timeless tale, a king summons a precocious shepherd and challenges him to answer three difficult questions. The third question is: “how many seconds of time are there in eternity?” He answers: “In Lower Pomerania [northern Poland, at the southern tip of the Baltic Sea] is the Diamond Mountain, which is two miles and a half high, two miles and a half wide, and two miles and a half in depth; every hundred years a little bird comes and sharpens its beak on it, and when the whole mountain is worn away by this, then the first second of eternity will be over.” Brilliant answer! Here is the complete story:

There was once on a time a shepherd boy whose fame spread far and wide because of the wise answers which he gave to every question. The King of the country heard of it likewise, but did not believe it, and sent for the boy. Then he said to him: “If thou canst give me an answer to three questions which I will ask thee, I will look on thee as my own child, and thou shall dwell with me in my royal palace.” The boy said: “What are the three questions?” The King said: “The first is, how many drops of water are there in the ocean?” The shepherd boy answered: “Lord King, if you will have all the rivers on earth dammed up so that not a single drop runs from them into the sea until I have counted it, I will tell you how many drops there are in the sea.” The King said: “The next question is, how many stars are there in the sky?” The shepherd boy said: “Give me a great sheet of white paper,” and then he made so many fine points on it with a pen that they could scarcely be seen, and it was all but impossible to count them; any one who looked at them would have lost his sight. Then he said: “There are as many stars in the sky as there are points on the paper; just count them.” But no one was able to do it. The King said: “The third question is, how many seconds of time are there in eternity.” Then said the shepherd boy: “In Lower Pomerania is the Diamond Mountain, which is two miles and a half high, two miles and a half wide, and two miles and a half in depth; every hundred years a little bird comes and sharpens its beak on it, and when the whole mountain is worn away by this, then the first second of eternity will be over.” The King said: “Thou hast answered the three questions like a wise man, and shalt henceforth dwell with me in my royal palace, and I will regard thee as my own child.”

A century later, Irish writer James Joyce tackles the same question in his autobiographical novel, A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, published in serialized form in Ezra Pound’s literary magazine, The Egoist, in 1914 and 1915. In the novel, we meet the protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, a sensitive, reflective young man, raised as a Catholic in Dublin, Ireland and, naturally, attends Clongowes Wood College, a Jesuit boarding school. Dedalus begins to question long-established Catholic beliefs and eventually rebels against them. Early in the novel, soon after his first sexual encounter, Dedalus feels guilt over this “first violent sin.” Consequently, he attends a three day spiritual retreat hoping to cleanse his soul. On the second day of the retreat, Fr. Arnall delivers one of his well-known fire-and-brimstone sermons on the consequences of sinning. If you grew up in Catholic schools in the mid-20th century, you know the drill: you will burn in the inferno of Hell — for an eternity. It is here, that speaking through Fr. Arnall, Joyce presents his metaphor, also employing a bird, to describe how long eternity is (you can imagine the impact this searing sermon had on impressionable, insecure young lads):

“What must it be, then, to bear the manifold tortures of hell forever? Forever! For all eternity! Not for a year or an age but forever. Try to imagine the awful meaning of this. You have often seen the sand on the seashore. How fine are its tiny grains! And how many of those tiny grains go to make up the small handful which a child grasps in its play. Now imagine a mountain of that sand, a million miles high, reaching from the earth to the farthest heavens, and a million miles broad, extending to remotest space, and a million miles in thickness, and imagine such an enormous mass of countless particles of sand multiplied as often as there are leaves in the forest, drops of water in the mighty ocean, feathers on birds, scales on fish, hairs on animals, atoms in the vast expanse of air. And imagine that at the end of every million years a little bird came to that mountain and carried away in its beak a tiny grain of that sand. How many millions upon millions of centuries would pass before that bird had carried away even a square foot of that mountain, how many eons upon eons of ages before it had carried away all. Yet at the end of that immense stretch time not even one instant of eternity could be said to have ended. At the end of all those billions and trillions of years eternity would have scarcely begun. And if that mountain rose again after it had been carried all away again grain by grain, and if it so rose and sank as many times as there are stars in the sky, atoms in the air, drops of water in the sea, leaves on the trees, feathers upon birds, scales upon fish, hairs upon animals — at the end of all those innumerable risings and sinkings of that immeasurably vast mountain not even one single instant of eternity could be said to have ended; even then, at the end of such a period, after that eon of time, the mere thought of which makes our very brain reel dizzily, eternity would have scarcely begun.”

Nearly a century later, American author Lois Duncan, best known for her young adult novels, returns to this the metaphor of the bird in describing eternity in her horror novel titled Stranger with My Face, published in 1981. Duncan writes:

“If there were a mile-high mountain of granite, and once every ten thousand years a bird flew past and brushed it with a feather, by the time that the mountain was worn away, a fraction of a second would have passed on the context of Eternity.”

The Irish-Norwegian band, Secret Garden, was also inspired by this image of a dove’s feather marking time. In their song, Dawn of a New Century, from the album of the same name released in 1999, songwriters Petter Skavlan and Rolf Lovland focus on the flight of a white dove:

Our planet floating silently in space
Around it, a white dove flies—
Forever circling
Every one hundred years, the dove’s wing
Gently touches the surface of the earth
The time it would take for the feathered wing
To wear this planet down to nothing
Is eternity
Within eternity, time passes
Within time, there is change
Soon, the wing of the white dove
Will touch our world again
The dawn of a new Century
Time for a new beginning
Now is eternity
At the break of
Dawn of a century
A thousand years
Of joy and tears
We leave behind
Love is our destiny
Celebrate the
Dawn of a century
Let voices ring
Rejoice and sing
Now is the time
Now is eternity
Love is our destiny

So the next time you look up in the sky, and see a bird flying by with a feather in its beak, realize that at that very moment you are living an infinitesimal sliver of eternity. Tempus fugit… make the moment matter.

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Read related posts: World Literature Has the Power to Help Mankind in These Troubled Times
The Power of Literature
The Poems We Turn To

For further reading: The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm (3rd Edition)
A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
Stranger with My Face by Lois Duncan

6 thoughts on “How Long is Eternity?

  1. Indeed, I love this passage by Sagan as well! Last year it inspired me to include a reminder about our “Pale Blue Dot” in an essay on art: I haven’t read Joseph Campbell, but have heard of his psychological fascination with mythology. Speaking of legends and folktales, I usually argue against certain people’s opinion of them as primitive. Evidently, each of those tales is usually a parable or an allegory with deep meaning. However, as you say, because of modern lifestyle eating a wormhole inside us, people today appreciate information whereas the people of old saw the world through images and a keen eye for metaphor. Perhaps the worst part of media is its dumbing down of human sensitivity.

    • Hi Angela: Thank you for sharing your thoughtful, eloquent essay The Unsettling Mission of a Masterpiece — filled with so many great insights and wonderful quotable lines, wrapped around the breathtaking, awe-inspiring image of the pale blue dot suspended in the multi-colored curtain of space. Your essay reinforces my observation of how important creative, artistic responses are to the existential crises of our time (the lethal COVID-19 pandemic, economic collapse, systemic, racism, erosion of democracy, political polarization, etc.) for our survival and inspiring hope. Sadly, discourse of this level is so amazingly rare — a precious, radiant gem floating in a sea of trifling tweets, likes, and emojis. So thank you for taking the time to write and share your thoughts. Cheers. Alex

      • Greetings Alex, and thank you so much for the kind words. You’re doing such important work with bringing culture to life through the writing on your website. Here’s to replenishing the everlasting spring of wisdom in whatever ways we can. Angela

  2. Many fairy tales, like this one, contain some of the most poetic wisdom.
    The immensity of the universe, of which our planet itself is only the “Pale Blue Dot”, would be overwheming if we realized it — but for the most part we have drawn our beaks to our offices and do not look up to the heavens, neither the physical heavens above, nor the spiritual heavens within us. What a grave error on behalf of humankind.

    • One of the most treasured sections of my library is what I call the “Wisdom” section. Adjacent to that is a section on fairy tales and folktales, since they are related. (BTW, have you read some of Joseph Cambell’s work, particularly his magnum opus, The Hero With a Thousand Faces.) You are absolutely right about the spiritual vacuum that is often the curse of modern life (we are, in T.S. Eliot’s words, the “hollow men.” One could say that overemphasis on work and obsession with social media and the internet is this massive black hole that sucks in all of humanity’s soul. Speaking of black holes, that first photo of a black hole in 2019 was an inspiration for a blog post where I discuss the humbling of humanity through one of my favorite Carl Sagan passages, which you allude to: The Black Hole and the Pale Blue Dot: the Humbling of Humanity. Cheers. AA

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